Bishop Bill Wright: The Church and The Herald

Relatively early in my time here, I met with the editor of the Newcastle Herald and journalist Joanne McCarthy. They were at pains to let me know that, despite what I might have heard, they are not anti-church but pro- the victims of child sexual abuse.

I was glad to hear that, though I did say  I thought it was potentially problematic that a passionate advocate like Ms McCarthy should also be writing the straight ‘news’ coverage of abuse matters. I was much happier when the Herald commenced its ‘Shine the Light’ campaign, clearly signifying it was championing a cause, not simply reporting objectively. As the years have gone by, however, I have become less convinced that the church does get a fair go from the Herald, and it is this I want to explore now.

I have no problem whatsoever with the Herald reporting allegations of clerical sexual abuse, trials, convictions, evidence before commissions or whatever is factual news. If priests or other church people have done wrong, let them be exposed and punished. The Herald’s searching out of these matters has indeed contributed to good things, like the Cunneen Commission and the Royal Commission. It is what the Herald chooses not to report that inclines me to think the church doesn’t get a fair go.

Joanne McCarthy did cite the diocese’s Zimmerman House services, which support victims and their families, in two articles back in 2008. As far as I can recall or discover from the Herald website, these services have not been cited again by Ms McCarthy as a resource for victims and their families since 2009. This would be despite the knowledge that credible non-church agencies, notably the Police, frequently refer survivors of abuse to Zimmerman Services.

An almost amusing instance of passing over anything good the church might happen to do occurred around the opening of new CatholicCare facilities at Mayfield in May 2013. These house new premises for Zimmerman Services, and well-known survivor of childhood abuse, Peter Gogarty, spoke. Media other than the Herald managed to quote some of what he said in tribute to Zimmerman Services and some of the kind remarks he made about Bishop Michael Malone and me. The Herald print edition said only, ‘Clergy sex abuse victim advocate Peter Gogarty was among those who addressed the opening...’  Actually, the Herald repeated this performance in October 2014, reporting on the launch of Mr Gogarty’s book, Judas Church. The Herald recorded that he ‘thanked award winning Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy and ABC reporter Suzie Smith for their years of work investigating and reporting on child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church....and mentioned the Royal Commission, Strike Force Lantle and retired Bishop Michael Malone’. In fact Gogarty had pretty much repeated his generous tributes to Bishop Malone (and me). You would never guess, from the Herald’s coverage.

More seriously, in reporting the evidence of Detective Sergeant Kristi Faber to the Cunneen Commission on 28 June 2013, the Herald omitted completely to mention her evidence in regard to her dealings with the diocese, Bishop Malone and Zimmerman Services personnel. DS Faber heads Strikeforce Georgiana, which has the best record, I believe, of charges and convictions in these matters in the state, if not the nation. She has been doing this work for a long time and is herself a bit of a crusader, so her evidence is significant. It can be seen on pages 1639 and 1640 of the Commission transcripts. In brief, DS Faber said that Bishop Malone and the people at Zimmerman Services assisted her investigation in every possible way. I’m no journalist, but I think even I could have found one usable quote from DS Faber’s extended testimony. Perhaps, ‘I’m aware through Zimmerman Services that Bishop Malone told them they were to exchange all information with us, and they did so’. Or perhaps, ‘...we’ve worked very closely with them over the entire five years and they have brought to us numerous complainants, and when we get complainants we contact Maureen O’Hearn from Zimmerman Services, who works tirelessly in relation to counselling and support of our victims..’  DS Faber actually said that? You wouldn’t read about it! Well, no, you wouldn’t. You didn’t.

Another way the Herald handles church-related news is by reporting not the news as such, but some individual’s reaction to the news. In February 2014 most media ran stories on Cardinal George Pell’s appointment to a high position in Rome. In general, they described the job, and perhaps speculated on what would come of it all. The Herald ran its story under the banner, ‘Abuse victims shocked by Pell’s Vatican post’ and gave six of its ten brief paragraphs to describing or quoting the reactions of one local ‘victim’, the Victorian parents of victims and one NSW politician. They variously thought the appointment was ‘unsettling’, ‘disturbing’ or, from Peter Gogarty, ‘a deadset shocker.’ It isn’t the actual news the Herald considers news, but certain people’s reaction to the news is treated as Big News. This was repeated when the Pope’s Nuncio in Australia was appointed to Rome. The Herald probably wouldn’t have covered that story for its own newsworthiness, but that did not prevent it running Mr Gogarty’s negative comments. Not that I blame Peter too much. He would have read in the Herald in December that Archbishop Gallagher had not complied with a request to hand over documents to the Royal Commission, unaware that the article, drawn from much earlier Commission documents, was being run weeks after Gallagher had handed over all his files.

There are too many other instances, not all in relation to sexual abuse matters. Coverage of church planning applications in which the Herald speaks only to residents or councillors who oppose the plans; the apparent tendency to have the ‘Comments’ option turned on for online ‘bad news’ church stories but off for anything tending to good news; the practice of quoting the view of ‘a parent’ or ‘a parishioner’ without revealing that this is actually the same person who has already been named as the principal complainant; marked inconsistency about seeking comment from the diocese before launching a story: there are many aspects of Herald coverage of church affairs that seem to me less than transparent or even-handed.

I want to end with one recent instance that made me angry. In December the Herald ran a piece citing ‘a man’ from Taree who accused the church of using that parish as a dumping ground for known predators. In fact the remark seems to have come from his solicitor. This man is apparently suing the church, though we had not heard of this before the Herald article. He alleges that he was abused by a priest (John Denham), a local sporting legend, a nurse and ‘a fourth man who cannot be named’, all connected to the parish, between 1978 and 1984. If this is so, it is a most terrible set of crimes against this man ‘John’, and I can only commend him for having the courage to tell his story and to seek redress. The Herald’s story, however, did not stop at that. Focusing on the solicitor’s ‘dumping ground’ comment, it cited the priest abusers Vincent Ryan, who was in the parish 10 to 15 years later, and Denis McAlinden, who was not even in Taree in the 70s or 80s, the nominated ‘dumping ground’ time, but was in Forster, apparently close enough to count.

What I object to is the shadow the ‘dumping ground’ line casts over all the other priests who were appointed to Taree and, to some extent, over the whole Catholic community there. Also, I object to the inclusion of the completely different story concerning the priest who was there from 2012 until early 2014. Fr Des Harrigan emerged from the Cunneen Commission hearings very honourably, being found to have given true evidence and assistance to the Police all along. In doing so, he had admitted to Police and to the Commission that he had possessed legal, adult pornography. This is a considerable fault in a priest, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with child abuse. The Herald, to give due credit, actually said his evidence wasn’t about child abuse, but still referred to it darkly as ‘disturbing’ evidence, leaving readers to make of that whatever they liked. Then to list in quick succession the appalling serial abusers Ryan and McAlinden and someone clearly identifiable as Harrigan seems to be verging on the slanderous.

Shortly I shall be making known the outcome of the Independent Advisory Panel’s review of the situations of Frs Hart and Burston, arising from Commissioner Cunneen’s adverse comments upon their evidence. I don’t expect to be given any credit for being the only institution that has specified from the outset how it would deal with the Commission’s recommendations or findings or adverse comments. The public apparently has no need to know, for instance, how the Police arrived at their decision about DCI Fox, the subject of much more adverse comment by Cunneen than either Hart or Burston. Neither do I expect that, when I do announce our findings, there will be much considered analysis.  It is likely that the Herald will find some one or other of the usual suspects, or a ‘parishioner’ or perhaps a politician, to say that they’re disgusted or appalled by what we have done. So be it.  It’s rather what I’ve come to expect.

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.